Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Have you ever noticed that the English seem to have an unending supply of wide-eyed pre- or just-pubescent boys who can act well and who all look vaguely similar? Just off the top of my head, there was (in recent years): Paul Terry (James and the Giant Peach), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and now we have Bill Milner in the new coming-of-age/dying-of-age story Is Anybody There?

There seems to be an endless supply of parts for this age (say, like, 9 to 13 or 14) but, of course, it’s not something an actor can build a long career on. It’s got an even shorter lifespan that “starlet” as far as career paths go. And much like our starlets, the English never seem to run out of them. But finding beautiful young women is a numbers game made easy by the fact that they sort of just happen, and they tend to congregate in highly visible areas.

It’s a lot more impressive to see someone like Milner or Highmore, who somehow have managed to acquire some serious talent in their short times. Why, back in the day, (particularly American) child actors were both hard to work with and not very good. You had lower standards, and you weren’t surprised when they didn’t have adult careers. A Jodie Foster or Jackie Earle Haley was a rare thing.

I’m starting to wonder if they have some sort of cloning device/Treadstone program for actors o’er there.

But, I digress. Milner, who was in the previously reviewed Son of Rambow, plays a pubescent boy whose parents have turned their house into a rest home to save themselves from bankruptcy. Young Edward (Milner) responds to this by becoming sullen and obsessed with life after death.

Into this picture comes The Amazing Clarence in his painted mini-camper, a travelling magician whose wife is convincing him to stay “for just a while”, something which doesn’t appeal to him, especially given the sorry cast of despondent old folks populating the house. Clarence’s wife, one can’t help but notice, is at least young enough to be his daughter. Hell, biologically, he’s probably old enough to be her grandfather (which is to say, he’s probably 30 years older).

And one thinks, if one is me, that the old fella is doing pretty damn good if he can live in that tiny camper van with his pretty young wife and still be agile enough to put on magic shows. But then, Clarence is played Michael Caine, so it seems completely plausible.

Edward and Clarence have a rough start, to say the least. Clarence is harboring huge regrets while Edward is filled with hostility. And throughout the course of an hour-and-a-half, we get to see all kinds of takes on mortality. Edward’s father, about to hit 40, is acutely aware of his own mortality, we learn, as he sees his service to the older people as leeching his life away.

The other old people themselves are all handling their twilights with different degrees of aplomb. And because it’s an English movie, they’ve all got their chops, and you recognize them at least a little (and in the case of Rosemary Harris, a lot), and never a moment is wasted.

The Boy commented that (once again) this wasn’t the wacky comedy the trailers made it out to be, but neither should you get the idea that it’s grim. It’s funny, sometimes very darkly funny and poignant at the same time, entertaining and restrained. It doesn’t wallow. The big emotional scenes are Caine’s, and they have not to do with getting older, but with unforgiven sin.

Which, when you get down to it, is what really makes a tragedy. Everybody dies. It’s the thought of sinning and being unforgiven that tortures us.

Since we’ve been talking about dramatic structure lately, I have to say that the 2nd act climax is huge, and probably Oscar-worthy for Caine. I saw the resolution coming well in advance, but it was still very satisfying.

Ultimately, then, this is an optimistic movie about life. Keep in mind, though, that Caine reported crying on reading the script and his (pretty, younger) wife was shaken up by seeing his (pretend) deterioration.

Actually, it kind of disturbed me, since Caine was one of the first actors I could identify, and he (as Dennis Miller put it) was contractually obligated to appear in every single movie made in the ‘80s. He’s always seemed to age without getting old. It’s a little hard to see him and a lot of other actors that seemed sort-of fatherly (Albert Finny, Alan Arkin, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer) play these roles where you’re about 80% sure their death is a critical plot point.

The title Is Anybody There? comes from a seance scene that Caine performs to give Edward some hope. But, of course, it also works as a question for those whose minds are going, or who have just given up with age. And it works as the great spiritual question, as well: Is anybody there? Or are we just bodies ultimately consigned to nothingness.

Expect to see this mentioned in the Oscars race for next year.

The Great Buck Howard

Remember Almost Famous? The semi-autobiographical tale of Cameron Crowe’s experiences following around The Allman Brothers? OK, imagine if, instead of following around a rock band, the lead had followed around The Amazing Kreskin.

If you can imagine that, you’re probably better at imaginin’ stuff than I am. If you can’t, you can always go see The Great Buck Howard.

TGBH is the dramatized story of writer/director Sean McGinley–and big props to this guy, who came up through the ranks writing for Fred Olen Ray and other B-movie luminaries, to finally get this big break–as a young man, who has freshly dropped out of law school in order to find something he actually likes doing. (An amusing note, he says through his character that he never found anyone in law school who loved it.)

Having no direction and no money, he signs up for this interesting job of “Road Manager for Big Celebrity”. The celebrity is The Great Buck Howard, a talented mentalist whose best days were 20-30 years ago. A regular on The Tonight Show–the one with Johnny Carson–he travels from town to town, proclaiming that He Loves This Town and giving handshakes like a man trying to start a model T.

His act is cheesy and corny, with his none-too-shabby “mentalist effects” alternating with some less than stellar standup and positively Shatneresque singing. Howard himself is by turns charming, irascible, wise, rude and ill-tempered.

The plot sort of hangs off a trick that is Howard’s signature: He leaves the stage, the audience hides his pay for the performance among them, and he has to find that money or not get paid. I’d say it was a heavy-handed metaphor, except that the Amazing Kreskin actually performed a similar trick repeatedly–not always succeeding. So the fact that it works as a metaphor is coincidental, apparently.

The whole movie breezes along in under 90 minutes, and with John Malkovich in the title role, you almost couldn’t get bored. This is a movie in the vein of My Favorite Year or any of the other “young man follows his heart while observing a wacky elder” flicks, from which you can probably figure out if it’s your cup of tea.

The lead role is played by Colin Hanks, whose father is played by his father, Mr. Tom Hanks. Emily Blunt, late of Sunshine Cleaning, gets to play a non-neurotic love interest/PR person, and the cast is filled with celebrities playing themselves (Tom Arnold, George Takei, Regis and Kelly), and a lot of people who look familiar but might take a moment to place, if you can place them at all (e.g. “Happy Days” Don Most).

The Boy enjoyed it, and was curious about the mentalist tricks. He didn’t know there wasn’t a Buck Howard. Understandable. Even I really couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know, and there were so many celebrities running around in the ‘70s, most of which I still don’t know what they were famous for. (I pity the future trying to keep track of today’s celebrities.) Anyway, it might be more interesting–or a different kind of interesting, anyway–to know where this movie hews to truth and where it wanders.

It probably won’t get a big release, but you could do a lot worse this weekend.

It Was 30(ish) Years Ago Today!

Back in 1978, producer Robert Stigwood unleashed upon the world the horror that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the album, obviously, but the movie. If you’ve heard of the historical (and perhaps hysterical) hatred of disco, this is probably exhibit A in understanding why.

Stigwood was hot off of Saturday Night Fever and Grease–both of which are sleazefests in their own way, really–and with the massive success of both the movie and soundtrack to Fever, the USA was subjected to a kind of musical homogeneity that we can scarcely imagine today.

The problem with disco wasn’t that it was bad, in other words, but that it was mandated. Everything had to be disco. Every producer was trying for that mega-blockbuster-Bee Gee deal. I didn’t listen to much radio, but I still heard a lot of disco, where before I’d been hearing Led Zeppelin and heavy metal, and more importantly a lot of different styles.

For a while, though, total disco immersion. It was inescapable. Hence the massive backlash that would end up with a lot of vinyl deposited in landfills.

So, here we had the callow flavor-of-the-day, in the form of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, discofying the music of the grand pop masters. And it’s kind of funny: Frampton’s voice is not unlike McCartneys, and the Bee Gees were certainly capable of carrying the Beatles’ trademark harmonies, even if with a little added nasality.

There are some genuinely high points, as well: Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together”; Earth, Wind and Fire doing “Got To Get You Into My Life”; and Billy Preston–a guy with Beatles bona fides–saving the day with his version of “Get Back”. Oh, and the lovely and fresh-faced Sandy Farina who gave uncluttered renditions of a few tunes that work really well with a woman’s voice.

The lows are horribly low. It wasn’t felt necessary to actually sing a number of the songs. Frankie Howerd (who?) talks his way through “Mean Mr. Mustard” and the incredibly white-hot super-mega-talent Steve Martin does a version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” that rivals anything William Shatner ever did. (There’s a universe between his performance here and his later one in Little Shop of Horrors.) George Burns–enjoying one of five or six career revivals–talks and smokes his way through “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.

“She’s Leaving Home” is performed largely by robots. Voice synthesizers were sooo cool in ‘78.

The little town of Heartland is the Warner Bros. lot. You’ve seen it a zillion times. (I used to drive through it sometimes on my way to work.) Gazebo in the middle of a small grass park. Lots of storefronts but no parking. It’s been Gotham, Central City, Chicago (for “ER”), but usually they only show parts of it. Even at the time, I recognized it.


The discofication of most of the songs that are actually performed–I mean, someone thought it’d be good to put in a refrain of “Talkin’ ’bout Lucy!” at the end of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”–robs most of the music of its listenability.

The over-produced sound would ultimately give way to a much cleaner, simpler sound in the ’80s, and a kind of Damnatio Memoria where instead of building on the previous big sound, bands would go back to the ’50s for inspiration. It would be just two years later that Airplane! would knock a tower off a station that promised “disco would live forever”, to huge audience applause and laughter.

The other aspect of this movie is, well, while Stigwood may not himself be sleazy, he’s made some really, really sleazy films. Beside the aforementioned Grease and SNF, there was Tommy and–hell, I thought Bugsy Malone had a kind of sleazy feel. So the camp and corniness in this film is overwhelmed by the sleaze.

It achieves a pornographic sensibility while being positively PG. There is, for example, a drug-fueled orgy, even though no clothing is removed. In the Potterization (Mustardization, actually, in this case) of Heartland, a clean storefront is turned into a (scandal!) video game arcade with lots of dancers writhing around the games.

Right. Because video games are like magnets for sexual activity.

No opportunity for sleaze goes unexplored, giving this film the only “fresh” thing it brings to a pretty shopworn plot. (Smalltown boys make it big and forget their values.) Sex, drugs, and no rock-and-roll.

At this point, I should probably offer a comparison to the recent Across The Universe, but I find that movie so offensive I can’t sit through it.

Observed and Reported

Observe and Report is the third movie in about as many weeks where the trailer is somewhat misleading about the kind of film being advertised. (The two previous were Adventureland and Duplicity.) I’ll take the position that this is due to the entirely laudable reason that these were different movies and hard for the marketing folks to pigeonhole. (None of these flicks have been blockbusters, either.)

In fact, while the trailer up until about last week had made the movie seem like a Will Ferrell-esque clown movie, the last trailer played a whole bunch more, making the movie seem more awkward and painful. I was on the fence before and leaning against it, but The Boy was rather enthused, so off we went.

It probably says too much about me that I really enjoyed this. It ping-pongs between a somewhat exaggerated broad comedy, and a black humor that borders on the tragic, much like the main character’s manic depression. It also surprised me on three or four occasions, which is not something I’m accustomed to.

The story is that Seth Rogan plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall cop with a bloated sense of self-importance. Hilarious, right? We had one of those movies this year already! This is really no coincidence, by the way: Studios get wind that one of their competitiors is coming out with a movie about meteors, volcanos, mall cops or whatever, and they’ll try to get their own product in there.

Anyway, the mall is being terrorized by a flasher. Which, I confess, struck me as quaint. (Can women today be terrorized by a flasher? I’d rather hope not.) Ronnie, of course, has only the sort of police skills one picks up from watching David Caruso dramatically take off his sunglasses. And when the beautiful cosmetics counter girl (Anna Farris) is traumatized, the cops are called in.

I love Anna Farris: She has the looks to go full bimbo, but somewhere about Scary Movie 3 she seems to have given her all to comedy. She actually plays a bimbo here, and a simply horrible person besides.

Meanwhile, the cop is played by the cruelly handsome Ray Liotta, who must endure Ronnie’s endless boasting and posturing, even as the mall cop ends up eating up his day with stupid dead-ends.

So, typical wacky comedy right?

But then we see Ronnie’s home life, and alcoholic mom (played by Celia Weston, who strongly recalls a younger Louis Lasser), and the laughs are of a completely different character. We see that he cares about something other than himself and also that his clownishness has a lot to do with his dreams and ambitions.

There are a lot of alternating scenes like this. Ronnie is an insufferable jerk, but then it turns out that his megalomania is the result of actual manic-depression. He invites the world to treat him badly, but sometimes when it does, he becomes surprisingly effective. We see him neglect the sweet and charming Toast-A-Bun girl most of the times, but also come surprisingly to her aid, even if in a terribly inappropriate way.

I can’t believe that this sort of movie has a broad appeal. It sets itself up in a very generic fashion–I knew instantly that Nell would be the true love interest instead of Brandi, for example–but then it refuses to overplay or oversell the comedy, and instead sells a strange violent twist.

Funny, if you can laugh at that sort of thing. Which I can. And The Boy can as well.

But if you find that sort of thing disturbing, this isn’t your movie.

Taking Chance

It took me a while to watch this one. It’s taken me longer to review it.

Taking Chance is the story of Lt. Col. Mike Strobl, who escorts the body of Chance Phelps to his final resting place in Dubois, Wyoming.

It’s about 1:15 long. It’s devoid of big emotions, high drama, or even a plot, really. And yet, I can barely imagine the soul that would be unmoved by it.

If you’re ignorant of these sort of things, you have no idea how much care goes into this detail. The rules are specific and the protocol meticulous. And it’s impossible not to feel a measure of pride in the respect given, even if you never knew about it before.

It seems right. It seems the only proper recognition, really. And what’s beautiful about this movie is that Strobl encounters a stream of Americans who are overwhelmed by Chance’s sacrifice.

And you get, in one small moment, a sense of why the whole mission means so much to Strobl (Kevin Bacon), and a look into the soul of the brothers-in-arms who serve us, often at the ultimate price.

You should see it.


Another case of terribly deceiving trailers, like Duplicity, Adventureland comes across as a wacky summer teen-sex comedy, in the mold of the ‘80s (when the story takes place). In the trailers, they show lots of Bill Hader (Superbad) and Kristen Wiig (misidentified in an earlier review as Katharine Wiig), who have a great and funny chemistry as the couple that manages the amusement part. They reference Superbad which was not entirely froth, but which had a very light feel overall.

The trailers even set it up to look like a mishap with the corn dogs causes hallucinations. Zany!

OK, so, Hader and Wiig are great. And very funny. But they’re really just a sideshow in what is essentially a romance. Not even a romantic-comedy, but a fairly heavy clash of two people trying to love each other.

In the lead is Jesse Eisenberg (Squid and the Whale) as James, looking a lot like the wispy Michael Cera, but with a fierce undercurrent of strong passion, and the waifish Kristen Stewart (hot off Twilight).

As our story open, Jesse’s dad has been “reassigned”, meaning they now don’t have the money to send him to Europe. They don’t even have the money to help him out at Columbia, where he’s been accepted into the Masters program for Journalism. So he gets a job at Adventureland, being not qualified for anything else. (That strikes me as a stretch; were there no temp office jobs for college grads in Pittsburgh in the ’80s? But, rolling with it….)

There at the park, he meets Joel (Martin Starr of Superbad), a morose but highly intelligent college graduate who majored in Russian and Eastern European Literature, and ultra-cool musician/maintenance older guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds in the role Paul Rudd would have done ten years ago). He also meets the sharp, broody Em (Stewart) and the shallow, curvy Lisa P (Margaraita Levieva, looking more ’80s than any of them).

I’d like to give a shout out to all the smart, curvy women who are tired of this stereotype, by the way. It’s necessary for the plot, here, though.

Basically, James is the romantic type. He’s at least 22, and still a virgin. It’s not that the opportunity hasn’t arisen, it’s that he wants for it to be worthy of a Shakespeare sonnet:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?

He decides to break up with his steady girlfriend on the night she was going to bed him because he didn’t want to be a slave to the hours and times of her desire.

This is not your ’80s-guy-tries-to-get-laid-with-wacky-consequences movie. James’ virginity is not played for laughs, awkward and embarrassing as it is, when he sits down with Em face-to-face to compare sexual histories. And they are both embarrassed for different reasons.

James falls for Em very quickly, but Em, who has suffered her own family traumas, is currently having an affair with the married Connell. Connell uses his cachet as a musician (though we never, ever hear him play, and the band we do hear is awful) to attract the young girls into his mother’s basement (no joke!).

So while James is falling harder and harder for Em, she’s feeling worse and worse about herself and trying to slow him down. His quirky charm attracts Lisa P who, against his better instincts and with Connell’s encouragement, takes her on a date. He’s wracked with guilt, unaware of Em’s relationship.

You can see how rough this is going to get, can’t you?

And it does.

There are many things that amused this old moviegoing warhorse, too: This movie is way less creepy and raunchy than the ’80s teen sex farces it reminds of. There’s no nudity. No glamorization of drunken makeout sessions. Apart from the kissing, everything else is off screen. Marijuana figures big with no particular judgment made about it, and there’s a lot of drunk driving–none of it funny. There’s a big going to New York City scene, which ends in the rain on a graffiti-and-trash covered street.

There’s anti-semitism! And the parents and adults, always fodder for humor in the teen sex farce, are portrayed fairly sensitively (if not in any great detail). For example, Em’s stepmother hates her, but when Em pulls at her wig during a cocktail party, you feel bad for the stepmother, too.

It’s not, not, not the wacky Superbad. That movie, upon reflection, suffered from the fact that Jonah Hill doesn’t really have Seth Rogan’s charisma, which is kind of critical for understanding why the girl is interested in him. The whole cast here does a great job even when there’s little screen time. I particularly thought that the two actors who played the fathers (Josh Pais and Jack Gilpin) did a good job looking like men who had somehow lost control of their lives.

We liked it–The Boy included–but I think they’ve played the PR wrong. A lot of people are going to think the movie is boring and slow because they were promised a comedy. So, as with Duplicity, beware. Unlike Duplicity, however, Em and James are hugely sympathetic characters–just kids trying to figure out how to reconcile their feelings with the fear that comes from not knowing how the other feels.

I Love You, Man

“And give me two tickets to Sunshine Cleaning.”

Lame joke, but you know I ran with it at the box office when we went to see I Love You, Man. They put up with me.

Male friendship is a popular topic here on the ‘strom, and here we have an interesting cinematic example. This movie is a romantic comedy, except the leads are two heterosexual platonic friends.

And, hey, ladies! The women in this movie are not jerks!

The story concerns Peter Klaven (the omnipresent Paul Rudd) who is a milquetoast-y real estate agent who has just proposed to girlfriend Zooey (“The Office”’s Rashida Jones) and realized that he has no candidate for Best Man. Seems Peter is more comfortable with women than with men.

His initial attempts at finding male companionship are unsuccessful, if not exactly hilarious. The humor here is really not broad; the movie stays realistic and tackles the issues in a fairly straight manner. Rudd does a good job being awkward at male-male relations.

Things get funnier when he meets Sydney Fife (the formerly fully frontally nude Jason Segel of Forgetting Sarah Marshall), who takes a shine to him and invites him on some “man-dates”. Sydney leads the life of the consummate bachelor and, if possible, Rudd is even more awkward than ever.

I liked this part. Peter doesn’t really know how to appropriate greet his new male friend, and in trying to be cool says things that are not real words. At one point, trying to come up with a nickname for Sydney, he calls him “Jopen”. There’s a lot of stuff like that, but Sydney rolls with all of it as Peter gets up to speed.

So, if you wanted to be hack about this, how do you create the tension? Well, you’d start making Peter’s fiancee jealous. The very cool thing about this movie is that fiancee Zooey never really gets jealous. What happens instead is that Peter finds himself just as ill-equipped to manage the needs of both people as they arise.

This happens at a Rush concert. So, if you like Rush, it’s got that going for it, too.

This culminates in a second act where the issue of trust becomes paramount. The hero loses his best friend, his girl and his job. (Not literally, but it looks like he’s going to have his dream property sold out from under him.) Having just seen Sunshine Cleaning, where the script never really recovers from the second act crisis, this movie works out very well and believably.

The trap of these movies often fall into is that they make you wonder why the hell the hero is interested in the girl in the first place, but not here. Besides Zooey, Jamie Pressley plays Zooey’s friend Denise, whose boorish husband Barry (John Favreau) refuses to do anything for her unless it results in some kink later on from her. (But even there, we learn that this isn’t quite as it seems.)

Zooey’s biological-clock-is-ticking sister Haley (Sarah Burns) has eyes for Sydney, but he’s not interested in settling down, but the movie avoids making her pathetic, and calls the eternal bachelor in his issues, without insisting he end up married at the end.

The movie’s about the two of them. And, rather sweetly, features callbacks to all the guys whom Peter didn’t bond quite as well with.

Although it has much of the feel of an Apatow movie, it’s mostly not as raunchy (the raunch is verbal and a lot less outrageous)–and, as I said, a lot more female friendly.

The Boy liked it. I had thought about not taking him, since there’s a fair amount of sex talk in it, but I didn’t find myself cringing. (He, of course, was not bothered at all.) He made the comparison between the more loosy-goosy Sunshine and this.

And I liked the message: It’s okay to be best friends with your girlfriend, and it’s okay to have guy friends, too. But most importantly, you have to communicate with both.

Oh, yeah, and Lou Ferigno looks great and not at all like he’s pushing 60.